Increases in California's gas tax and vehicle fees approved last week are expected to raise $52.4 billion over 10 years for the state's backlog of road and bridge repairs. It is, by any measurement, a significant amount of money — Gov. Jerry Brown dubbed the proposal “a hell of a good deal” — but only about half of what the state would ultimately like to put behind large-scale improvements in the Inland Empire and beyond if the federal government is willing.
In early February, Brown's office released to the Trump administration — through the National Governors Association — a $100 billion wish-list of investments for not only roads and bridges, but energy, military, ports and public transit, some 51 projects total.
“California is home to one out of every eight Americans,” wrote Nancy McFadden, the governor’s executive secretary, “and when we build in California, we build for America.”
As a candidate, Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to spend $1 trillion on infrastructure projects. Although the idea is popular even among California Democrats, there’s growing skepticism that President Trump will be able drum up support for such a massive proposal in Congress now that liberals and the Libertarian-leaning Freedom Caucus have emerged as an impediment to his agenda for political and philosophical reasons.
Dan White, director of fiscal policy research at Moody’s Analytics, predicts that Trump, if he successfully pushes an infrastructure plan through Congress at all, will get more like $200 to $250 billion rather than $1 trillion. He says the money is likely to come from one of the president’s other plans to bring corporate profits back home in exchange for letting companies keep the majority of it.
The practice is known as repatriation and some politicians will probably have other ideas about how to spend the one-time boost in revenue that have nothing to do with infrastructure. The recent failure to reform Obamacare “reminded us that these things are still hard,” White said, “no matter who’s in the White House.”
Whatever the source of infrastructure funding, it's bound to be controversial.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao has cited toll roads as one possible mechanism, but those fees — uncommon in the west — are highly unpopular among the public and Democrats would prefer to see direct federal spending. Trump’s pick for commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, and Peter Navarro, an economist who heads the National Trade Council, have recommended $167 billion in equity and private investor tax credits as another way to underwrite a $1 trillion package over the next decade.
Earlier this year, however, business and labor leaders told the House transportation committee that they were skeptical private interests would create enough investment, especially in rural areas, where the incentive to profit is dramatically decreased. There was concern that the regions that will ultimately benefit would have found funding regardless of Trump's incentives.
Trump himself has spoken of a “fix-it first” policy, suggesting that maintenance would be valued above new construction, but there remain a lot of unknowns — including whether the various construction industries still have enough workers after years of decline.
Another problem: Trump told business leaders at the White House last week that he’d waive nearly all the environmental regulations involved in the review process so long as projects are "shovel ready" within 90 days. But as David Pettit, a senior attorney in Los Angeles with the National Resources Defense Council, noted, "You can’t even hire a consultant in 90 days."
Trump was likely referring to the National Environmental Policy Act, but there's an even more powerful regulatory instrument locally known as California Environmental Quality Act. When the economy was in the tank during the Obama era, there was greater pressure to speed up the process and dump stimulus spending on major parts of the country. The same appetite may no longer exist.
In any case, Pettit said, Trump doesn't have the authority to bypass environmental reviews. That responsibility would fall on Congress.
“He can’t do that just with a stroke of the pen,” Pettit said.
So what’s on the California wish list?
Brown is eyeing high-speed and commuter rail between Orange County and Silicon Valley, as well as desalination and other water recycling projects in major coastal cities. One program out of Los Angeles would help recharge groundwater basins.
Multiple streetcar and rail projects in urban areas made the list, and so did improvements to the Otay Mesa security crossing that’s southeast of San Diego.
Locally, Brown is seeking money for habitat restoration and dust suppression at the shrinking Salton Sea, as well as an Eagle Mountain hydropower project outside Joshua Tree National Park that would help the state meet its renewable energy and climate change goals by bringing more solar and wind power onto the grid.
Conservationists, however, fear that the project will harm wildlife and diminish the Chuckwalla Valley aquifer over half a century. They say the project is at odds with the state’s attempt to conserve more water.
The vast majority of the projects would be dedicated to reducing congestion and expanding lanes and interchanges. That includes express lanes on Highway 15 in Riverside County between Cajalco Road and SR 60, and express lanes on Interstate-10 in San Bernardino County between the Los Angeles County line and SR 15. Both are major freight corridors.
The Riverside County project, which is expected to begin construction early next year, got a boost of funding on Wednesday morning when the regional transportation commission awarded set aside $263.4 million for the design contract.
It’s too early to say whether any or all of the projects on the state's wish-list will get money. Chao, Trump’s transportation secretary, has suggested that a clearer picture would be available by end of 2017.
“There is no plan, at least not yet,” said Sean Sloane, senior transportation policy analyst at the Council of State Governments. “We can read tea leaves, but we’re two months into this administration and we know virtually nothing.”
Jesse Marx covers politics. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @marxjesse on Twitter.
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